John Bailey: Life of a Norfolk fisherman ... coming home

Robbie Northman with pike

Robbie Northman with another tidal river success - Credit: John Bailey

As I stated last week, by 2010 I was back in Norfolk full time and relishing life in the east again.

It’s stating the obvious, of course, but the angling scene I found had changed beyond comprehension and so much of what dazzled us in the 1960s and 70s had been ripped apart. But this isn’t an old, smelly angler having a whinge, and while we have lost much, so we have gained equally.

Take carp. In 1969, I asked Len Bryer in the legendary Fakenham tackle shop if he knew of carp waters and he could think of Lenwade’s Station lake and not much else. Today, the number of waters holding 20s and 30s would have taken Len an afternoon to list. Or think tench. In 1973, all we young bucks could think of and pray for was a dreamed-of six-pounder, yet in May 2020 I netted an amazing 53 tench in excess of 8lb. How this ecological change came to pass is a long and complicated story, but the fact is that we are catching tench now that would have smashed records then. Or bream if you like, and many do not I know, but the story is the same. I mentioned Andy Davison’s record 13lb-er from years back, the sort of fish I then believed I would never see. But 2020 I did see 13lb-ers aplenty, including fish of 15lb and even 16lb. In this new age of ours, you sometimes cannot believe the gifts that are showering upon us.

John Bailey with a bream

JB with a double figure bream... beauty is in the eye of the beholder - Credit: John Bailey

Commercial fisheries way back did not exist and perhaps the nearest you could find to one would have been Joker Norton’s lakes at Hevingham, but even there the thought of nets of 200lb of carp would have reduced Joker to unrestrained tears of disbelieving laughter. Trout and sea fishing are probably slightly more difficult to quantify. There are probably fewer stillwater trout fisheries than there were in the 70s, but the quality of what is available now is first class. I have long praised the Norfolk Flyfishers  but think too of the splendid Rockland Mere run by the Harrold team. What a jewel that is. And if you want wild fish, then the work done by the Norfolk Rivers Trust and by individuals like Nick Zoll and Charles Rangely Wilson has transformed some of our north western chalk streams. 

After Uni, I “enjoyed“ a year digging lugworms professionally off the north Norfolk coast and I doubt if a tougher job has existed since the building of the pyramids. However, the point is that back then millions of lug were dug annually to satisfy all the ravenous cod that once swept our shores come winter time. They have now gone, along with the diggers, but this last decade sport with mackerel has been sometimes dynamic and if you put in the leg work, then bass fishing can be good enough for you not to miss your week after bonefish in the Seychelles. 

I’m not in a strong position to comment on the tidal rivers and Broadland as I have never been entirely comfortable with them. I failed utterly in my piking on the Thurne in the 80s and my attempts to catch a 2lb roach from the lower Yare have been clownish. However, as we know, there are amazing predators back again throughout the system. When I go out with young maestro Robbie Northman, I catch cracking perch and pike and when he goes out without me to hold him back, he does even better. I do, however, remember piking legend Frank Wright telling me of a trip he made up the river Thurne after the killer algae prymnesium had struck there in the late 60s. The Broadland masters of those days knew there were huge pike there of course, Frank told me, but until they saw them there dead and floating , they had never guessed quite what the stocks were. Frank swore that there was not just a sprinkling of pike there over 40lb, but dozens of them, if not scores. No matter how good Robbie is today, he’ll never again catch pike like those.

There are two indisputable areas of angling disaster if we compare 1970 with 2020. One is the Norfolk estate lake, of which there were scores of absolute blinders back in the day. Wolterton, Melton Constable, Barningham and dozens more were absolute paradise to a young lad like me. Of course, Blickling and Gunton are still vibrant and Robin Combe has worked miracles at Bayfield against all odds, but overall, we have lost venues unique in the annals of angling. They will never return I fear and nor will the halcyon days of the upper rivers. The Wensum once was designated the seventh most important river in Europe on conservation grounds and that is hard to believe when you look at the pitiful drain it has become today. I received a communication by email last week listing 18 bodies paid to be looking after the Wensum. EIGHTEEN!? Are there 18 barbel left in that unfortunate river or 18 2lb roach? I very much doubt it. 

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So there  you go, fishing in my lifetime as I see it. We have gained much but we have lost a lot. Any conclusion is impossible or at least would be subjective in the extreme and as my stepson would say, irritatingly, “it is what it is”. Me? I’d swap 9lb tench and endless 20lb carp for estate lake rudd, upper river roach, Thurne “40s,” winter cod, quiet  roads, and  small town tackle shops smelling of pipe smoke in the blink of an eye. So perhaps I am that old, smelly, whinging angler I was so desperate not to be after all.